The U.S. Air Force is examining possible early retirements for a range of legacy platforms, especially if digitally engineered eSeries systems can readily step in to fulfill the missions of those platforms in contested environments with potential “near peer” adversaries China and Russia.
“Anything that can be contested in a high end fight is on the table for consideration,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper told reporters on Sept. 23. “We simply can’t afford to be an Air Force that can only go into one part of the world and not others, and so any of our legacy systems that weren’t designed for a peer competitor fight are things we’re actively looking at. The question that always is on the table next to it is how do we do that mission another way, or do we just simply accept the risk of not doing that mission.”
A Center for Strategic and International Studies’ report last November said that the Air Force could save $29 billion in sustainment costs over the next five years through the early retirement of eight aircraft: the E-3 AWACS, the RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) plane; the KC-10 tanker; the B-1 and B-2 bombers; the U-2 spy plane; and the A-10 close air support aircraft.
Roper has established a goal of moving funds away from the sustainment of legacy systems and toward research and development and procurement to satisfy force structure demands for 300 or more Air Force squadrons, possibly the 386-squadron goal laid out in 2018, and to field technologies required for high-end wars. He has said that digital engineering will be key to fielding tranches of new, advanced features for a given program every few months. The classified Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter full-scale demonstrator used such engineering to get from concept to first flight in record time, according to the Air Force.
Along with the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), digital engineering is to be a major topic of discussion in November at the annual CORONA meeting of Air Force brass at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
“It’s pretty rare for an acquisition topic to be something that’s center stage, but we’re all going to discuss it and talk about how we build a different Air Force and Space Force with it,” Roper said on Sept. 21.
On Sept. 14, U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett named the Boeing [BA] and Saab Red Hawk training aircraft as the first system to carry the “e” prefix designating digitally engineered systems (Defense Daily, Sept. 14).
E-systems could range from aircraft and drones to satellites and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
“What I owe our Air Force from an acquisition standpoint [on the possible early retirement of legacy systems] is what alternatives could be available within industry,” Roper said on Sept. 23. “I have a very excited audience on digital engineering that we can design and explore things quickly and get from the design to something that you can go fly and verify. Things I’m looking at now [are] how you can distribute things like AWACS so you don’t have to have a single, one stop platform? How do we do ISR in a contested environment–initiatives like MQ-Next. Can we do that a different way, or can we find a way to do the mission that we currently do with MQ-9s in a more survivable way? As I feed back options to the Air Force, that arms them to look at the [legacy platform] retirements more aggressively.”
Capitol Hill has traditionally been resistant to cutting legacy platforms, as their maintenance pumps significant funds into defense bases.
“Working with constituencies that own those legacy assets to retire them is a tough thing to sell in Washington, and I think that’s because the next thing that’s going to replace it is never in the works,” Roper said on Sept. 21.
“When is the successor to ‘you pick your system’ going to be built, and the answer is, ‘We don’t know,'” he said. “What I hope will be true in the ‘eSeries’ paradigm, where we can design faster, quicker, smaller lots, is that we can be building the successor system when it’s time to retire the thing it will replace, and, if that’s the case, I’m willing to hit the ‘I believe’ button that we can work that out with constituencies when you can go put your hand on the thing in the production line and say, ‘This is what’s coming.’ How long has it been since things have been that frequent? Probably the 1970s is where I trace it back to where systems still showed up every four years or so. It’s a coupled problem, and we have to be able to work this with our external board of directors, and that’s Congress.”
In another eSeries development, Roper said that the Air Force may announce the first digitally engineered tactical weapon next month. The U.S. Space Force has two “eSats” in development, but Roper said on Sept. 21 that they are classified.
The “eSat” development and fielding apparently will take several years longer than the timeline for “eSeries” aircraft.
“The supply base [for digitally engineered space systems] isn’t there,” Roper said. “When you go to digital engineering, I have wonderful models that integrate design and assembly and even operations, but, if my supply base doesn’t build parts that align with those models, especially their tolerances, then I actually don’t have a digital thread because I cut it at the beginning. So step one is going to be companies, or, in my case, programs building up their digital thread and then working with their vendors to tighten their supply base to meet the tolerances that their tools demand.”
Roper said that he has asked the two “eSat” programs to look into eliminating “the hard, expensive or otherwise difficult things,” such as “high tolerance clean rooms, the expensive tooling, the highly experienced work force, the rigging and harnessing.”
“The things that make satellites expensive, let’s see if we can design them out and get something that’s more like a ‘Toyota sat’–easy to build but reliable and hardworking–in the space battlefield,” Roper said.